“Frankophobia: On the Fear of Adulthood in Blue Velvet and Frank

by Mike LeSuer Volume 22, Issue 1 / January 2018 26 minutes (6305 words)

“Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrows springs are the same” – Hopkins, “Spring and Fall”

“If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world. It’s impossible.” – Catcher in the Rye

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The young cinematic hero’s “frank” introduction to the irrational world of adulthood through the years (top to bottom: Blue Velvet (1984), Donnie Darko (2001), Frank (2014)

In stark contrast with more objective genres, the coming-of-age story has become increasingly vague in its classification since the term “coming-of-age” was adopted for bildungsroman literary works at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly outside of the United States. For every Catcher in the Rye (Salinger, 1951), European writers retorted with a Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Nezval, 1945), which paints adulthood as a vampire-infested dystopia devoid of any relatable content rather than merely recounting the universal struggles of pre-teens literally, though literarily. In fact the only thing Valerie really has in common with Holden Caulfield is mid-pubescence.

In the world of film, Czechoslovakia was gawking at animated carnivorous shoes and wily potatoes in Down to the Cellar (Švankmajer, 1983) around the same time the U.S. was adoring Ponyboy’s golden sheen in The Outsiders (Coppola, 1983); Japan was riding a magical Catbus visible only to children in My Neighbor Totoro (Miyazaki, 1988) around the same time the U.S. was realizing they’d definitely outgrown their Peter Pan syndrome following the release of Hook (Spielberg, 1991); England was reliving history through the eyes of a young boy in Time Bandits (Gilliam, 1981) around the same time the U.S. was fabricating a highly specific nostalgia for Christmas as a nine-year-old boy in the 1940s in A Christmas Story (Clark, 1983). Is there an explicit through-line in each of these six distinctive directors’ attempts at recreating a pivotal period between adolescence and adulthood, or does the coming-of-age genre merely encapsulate any film referencing this age group?

Rome wasn’t re-bildt in a day: Valerie being nestled by Adulthood in the abstract film adaptation of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

It may be important here to distinguish the recently-established “coming-of-age” genre from the more traditional bildungsroman model notably consistent through creation stories, Greek mythology, and, yes, Star Wars (Lucas, 1977). Surprisingly, since Joseph Campbell meticulously spelled it out in his texts on the hero’s journey, the monomythic model has become less prevalent in American films, which often favor setting over substance. As is the case with A Christmas Story and other canonical mainstream American movies (e.g. American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973), The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985), Dazed and Confused (Linklater, 1993)) the coming-of-age experience hinges less on the realization of fundamental truths of existence than on a reimagining of an influential moment in history for the individual storyteller, employing nostalgia as a crutch instead of a solid foundation.

Viewing the bildungsroman story as a universal model of societal genesis and self-discovery – as in the case of the previously-mentioned non-American films – gives favor to the alternative method of capturing impending adulthood, which heavily employs abstraction as a means of storytelling from the point of view of a young protagonist who is just as shocked and confused about apparent adult behavior as their audience. This mental solidarity between audience and protagonist when interpreting the same bizarre events is what sets this unique form of storytelling apart, whereas mainstream American coming-of-age stories act as a conscious revisitation and analysis of our individual nation’s cultural heritage. A perpetual did-I-miss-something structure acts well in accordance with an equally alienated bildungsroman mindset.

In solidarity with Campbell’s model, the hero’s journey in many of these abstract bildungsroman stories begins with a sudden introduction to a mysterious or evil figure which invites (or perhaps demands) the hero’s participation in a frightening process of assimilation to alien surroundings. This force commonly materializes in human form, but embodies the collective evils of the world previously kept hidden by protective parents (or in the cases of such horror films as The Brood (Cronenberg, 1979), Parents (Balaban, 1989), and The Babadook (Kent, 2014), the force of evil is the protective parents). The forceful frankness with which this truth is imparted unto the protagonist and their audience is staggering mostly due to its utter unfamiliarity and intimidating aggression.

In fact, “Frank” just so happens to be the name of many embodiments of this force in American film, from the doomsaying rabbit suit in Donnie Darko (Kelly, 2001) to the childhood-wrecking hitman in the Italian-American Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, 1968). By identifying the characteristics of the archetypal Frank in a work of fiction, and charting how this behavior adapts to an ever-changing world, perhaps it may become more clear as to which films warrant a traditional coming-of-age classification as distinguishable from the more isolated “came-of-age” narratives focused exclusively on a bygone era.

Landing somewhere between wild abstraction and kitschy period piece, both Darko and West are very much reflective of their respective settings, but both keep a safe distance from retracing the steps of any previously documented segues into adulthood. Yet for anthropologists of the distant future to best understand the tribulations plaguing Western teenagers throughout film’s first two centuries, there are somewhat more cohesive alternatives. While Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986) depicts impending adulthood in the 20th century as a gas-huffing madman conquerable by keeping to the straight and narrow, Frank (Abrahamson, 2014) offers a much bleaker view of an equally-loony disposition incapable of providing the young protagonist with the real-world experience needed to adapt.

Blue Velvet is presented as an off-kilter mystery following recent high school graduate Jeffrey Beaumont as he investigates a disembodied ear he discovers in a field. This ear leads him to Sandy Williams, a neighbor and eager partner-in-crime, Dorothy Vallens, a sexually abused nightclub singer, and Frank Booth, sexual abuser, presumed ear-remover, and confirmed lunatic responsible for bringing these disparate characters together. While Booth’s erratic behavior cartoonishly channels the sadism of Jack Torrence combined with the juvenile harassment of Biff Tannen, a bildungsroman reading of the film makes Booth out to be nothing but an inhuman introduction to the “strange” and “dangerous” world of adulthood for young Jeffrey.

As Švankmajer, Gilliam, and Miyazaki explore the creative fictions between the pages of their young heroes’ picture books, Lynch’s work (including Twin Peaks (1990-1991), Eraserhead (1977), and, Dune (1984)) is concerned with a more mature assimilation to the intimidating and ugly world of adulthood. Further, by omitting scenes of cultural rites specific to a certain time and location (as well as consistently offering contradictory clues as to what decade we’re even in), Lynch’s stories withstand the test of time without enlisting the crutch of nostalgia via T-Birds, in-school detention, or bong rips. With Blue Velvet, Lynch captures a subtle yet poignant moment of young adulthood in what is arguably the most apt depiction of the universal coming-of-age process filmed in the twentieth century.

“Frank is a very dangerous man”

A stirring glimpse into the unblinking eyes of Adulthood

The word “frank,” when applied to Frank Booth (henceforth “Booth”), refers to his blunt depiction of the adult’s unanticipated irrationality through the eyes of Jeffrey, who is seemingly experiencing a grown-up treating him as a contemporary for the first time, rather than censoring their behavior in the presence of a child (or asking him about school, as Jeffrey, a first-year at an out-of-town university, is certain to hear a lot). We’re first introduced to the untamable force of nature that is Booth from behind the safely indiscrete slats of Dorothy’s closet door when Booth enters her apartment. Booth immediately proves himself a whirlwind of grotesque variants on familiar human traits – most noticeably helpless infancy (“Mommy! Baby wants to fuck!”) and domineering paternity (“It’s daddy, shithead! Where’s my bourbon!”) – as well as some strikingly unfamiliar traits – violent sexual deviance (“Don’t you fuckin’ look at me!”) and utter drug-addled nonsense (“Get ready to fuck, you fuckers fucker! You fucker!”).

Every aspect of Booth’s behavior is novel to us, from his spastic mood swings to his incessant and truly versatile use of a certain expletive. In fact, the two seem to go hand-in-hand: there’s almost always at least one undefinable “fuck” in every non-sequiturial rant he utters while simultaneously carrying out an equally incomprehensible and vulgar action. This word acts as a verbal representation of an inexpressible feeling of extremity accessible only in the realm of adulthood, something a juvenile Jeffrey has yet to understand. In fact, the only other character who uses the expletive in the entire film is Booth’s friend Ben, who only utters it upon Booth’s insistence (toasting Booth: “Here’s to your fuck, Frank”) – one of many instances in which Booth-the-force-of-adulthood leads a non-consenting peer into corrupt behavior, whether it’s the use of coarse language, an act of sex or violence, or the imbibition of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

This is not to say we’re to assume Jeffrey hasn’t been exposed to this sort of language before, as much as Lynch’s idyllic suburban imagery and Kyle McLachlan’s emanating innocence may suggest this. Instead he’s likely hearing what he’s previously considered “adult language” used for the first time in an adult context, rather than casually and immaturely with friends behind his parents’ backs. Thus, “fuck” is one of Booth’s most effective tools for readjusting Jeffrey’s perception of adulthood and a symbolic component of “the real world” so often referred to by parents and teachers who try their best to prepare youths for the Franks and “fucks” they’re sure to encounter later in life. In the context of the film, this expletive acts as an adequate definition for the otherwise-undefinable proposed Frank-ness of adulthood, almost as if the inherent violence and sexuality in the word empower Booth’s corruptive behavior.

This isn’t the only word Jeffrey is learning new definitions of – Booth’s contemptuous use of the once-pure identifier “neighbor” to refer to Jeffrey throughout the film, as well as Dorothy’s sexualized use of “friend” for him, severely alter Jeffrey’s pre-established ideas of what these terms have signified since childhood. A crucial aspect in Jeffrey’s transition to adulthood is his increasing understanding of these and other euphemisms which a child would only comprehend at face value. “I’m seeing something that was always hidden” Jeffrey tells Sandy, referring to his experience translating the euphemisms wildly spouted by Booth – a man who shares a last name with one of American history’s most infamous assassins – and Dorothy – a woman whose surname sounds like an exaggerated southern pronouncement of “violence” – into stark reality.

And just as Booth manipulates language, so too does he manipulate behavior. Upon meeting Booth, we view him as an anomaly, totally unlike anyone else we’ve encountered. Yet Jeffrey soon finds out that Dorothy shares certain irrational and often violent sexual urges with Booth, despite falling victim to them moments earlier. Similarly, when we meet Booth’s friends they all seem to share his unique intimidating unpredictability – even “suave fucker” Ben takes after him, adopting Booth’s scornful use of “neighbor” as he socks Jeffrey in the stomach. It’s as if everyone who comes into contact with Booth falls under his spell, performing their identity to a violent extreme. Even if they’re not literally being kidnapped by him, his toxic influence turns individuals into manipulated extensions of his hellish persona (Booth, forcing Jeffrey to toast Ben: “I can make him do anything I please”).

While Booth is undoubtedly the catalyst for the majority of events in Jeffrey’s journey, it’s important to note that it isn’t until Jeffrey visits his barely-responsive father in the hospital in a brief but affecting scene that his adventure begins. This is Jeffrey’s first unlearning-of-childhood experience – the man in the hospital bed is no longer the permanent familial fixture known as “dad,” but instead a de-mythicized mortal and temporarily-vegetative being for whom death is inevitable. As far as the audience is concerned, there was no ear in the field on Jeffrey’s way to the hospital, only on the way back. Though the in-one-ear-and-out-the-other structure of the film offers precise parameters for transitioning in and out of Jeffrey’s subjective reality, the hospital is where the hero’s journey really begins.

The only other time we see Mr. Beaumont before the film’s closing white-picket-fence scene is in Jeffrey’s dream, where a distorted image of his father’s face is juxtaposed with that of Booth. This connection, of course, is made unconsciously and is therefore an unbiased clue to Booth’s origin: Jeffrey’s first encounter with the tragedies inherent in aging, including but not limited to observing the declining health of a parent and for the first time experiencing the subsequent role-reversal brought upon by his father’s helplessness. “Frank” appears to be predominantly a fear of the unknown, Jeffrey’s introduction to this likely being his first thoughts of taking care of his parents as opposed to the converse, what he deems familiar.

Adulthood makes his voice heard as Jeffrey processes a translation

While the id-fueled Booth embodies the novel evil of the adult world, the “good” Jeffrey finds is someone he’s already familiar with – maybe not personally, but archetypally. Detective Williams, local police investigator, father of Sandy, and resident superego, is the sort of “neighbor” and “friend” Jeffrey grew up with – rational, relatable, trustworthy (note how the family’s generic friendly-American last name contrasts with Jeffery’s new acquaintances’). Though there’s little explicit communication between Jeffrey and the detective due to Jeffrey’s promise to keep a safe distance from the case and the detective’s inability to share confidential police information, Williams is consistently a voice of understanding to the ever-curious Jeffrey (“I was the same way myself when I was your age”) while walking him through the painful chapter of life experienced by every teenager entering adulthood. Ever aware of Jeffrey’s intuitions, Williams leaves Jeffrey with a warning when he picks up Sandy for a potentially-unruly party near the end of the film: “Easy does it Jeffrey. Behave yourself.” For a euphemism-wary Jeffrey, though, this advice more accurately applies to his present adult situation: leering at the corrupt cop and business partner of the man who’s brutally raping the woman Jeffrey is currently having an affair with. Later, when Jeffrey finally puts a bullet through Booth’s head, Williams materializes to tell him that “it’s all over” – “it” being Jeffrey’s transition to adulthood.

Yet the affirmation we receive that Jeffrey takes after the film’s most positive moral influence is frequently counteracted by the looming presence of Booth, who like Mulholland Drive’s (Lynch, 2001) mysterious Mr. Roque, appears to control the actions of everyone he chooses to involve in his schemes. The film’s most chilling moment takes place when a wide-eyed and inhalant-huffing, Booth turns to Jeffrey and utters: “you’re like me.” Jeffrey’s similarities to Detective Williams are apparent from the start, but as Booth’s presence begins to dominate the film, it also begins to dominate Jeffrey: his first sexual encounter coincides with Booth’s visit to Dorothy’s apartment, and his first act of violence (he punches Booth only seconds after Booth verbalizes their likeness) occurs upon their first meeting. Though the two never meet, Williams and Booth act as shoulder-angel and –devil respectively to Jeffrey, who becomes understandably compelled by the novelty of the devil’s pitch.

Along with unrestrained irrational force, authoritative manipulation, and source of utter alienation, the fourth and most empathetic constituent of Frank is his inability to restrain his wild emotions, along with his inability to dissociate them. Throughout the film, Booth’s sexual and violent responses are extremely convoluted, though always extreme. After being punched by Jeffrey, Booth’s response is to shout “Next! You out of the car, fuck!” – a truly nonsensical burst of emotion enunciated in a way that seems to describes Jeffrey as an “out-of-the-car (adj.) fuck (n.)” rather than a command directed at said fuck (n.) to get out of the car (the “Next!” also proves enigmatic – does Booth regularly preface future actions with transitional phrases?). Once Jeffrey is removed from the car, Booth aggressively kisses him and threatens to send him a “love letter straight from [his] heart, fucker” (also known as a “bullet from a fuckin’ gun, fucker”), redefining two more words for Jeffrey: love, which translates to “brutal violence,” and violence, which evidently means “unconditional love.”

Though certainly amplified, this may be the most relatable quirk of Booth’s, as it speaks to the complex emotions accessible in adulthood that aren’t previously available in childhood. A moving work of art can produce tears even if the adult audience can’t identify whether they’re happy or sad (Booth certainly reacts strongly to music), while new ambiguous emotions, such as nostalgia, confusingly combine two such extreme feelings. Compared with the black-and-white world of childhood, the adult experience is often difficult to interpret and, thus, communicate. Hence the euphemisms and all-purpose profanity.

“Why are there people like Frank?”

Ultimately, Blue Velvet is the story of this unlearning of childhood and becoming all-too-familiar with adulthood over the course of only a few turbulent weeks when the two realities overlap. As Twin Peaks explored in much more depth five years down the road, this transition elicits an oddly comedic situation where the teenager’s worst nightmare is obliterated by that of the adult’s. Jeffrey quickly finds that his high school drama pales in comparison to that of his “real world” problems, notably punctuated in a scene where Sandy’s belligerent boyfriend confronts Jeffrey only to nervously apologize and peel out moments later when a completely nude and badly bruised Dorothy Vallens suddenly appears in the otherwise-idyllic suburban landscape (supposedly based on a traumatically Frank-like experience from Lynch’s own childhood). This serves as the concise conclusion to Lynch’s thesis on Jeffrey’s ultimate redefinition of “fear.”

As several scholars of Lynch have noted, a recurring theme in his filmography is the distortion or irrelevance of facial cues which eerily mask his characters’ emotions and create a subtle sense of unease. Unlike Donnie Darko’s Frank the Bunny, Lynch’s bogeymen formulate masks out of their own unresponsive facial features, obliterating the connection between feelings and emotion, and consequently, character and audience. Booth – like Bob in Twin Peaks, the Mystery Man in Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997), and well, everyone in Inland Empire (Lynch, 2006) – isn’t meant to be seen as a flesh-and-blood character for which the audience can connect, but rather a mask pieced together by the consistent history of human nature’s evil urges. As Jeffrey learns – and as the audience is reminded through Jeffrey’s journey – these urges are shocking to observe for the first time, as is the realization that everyone is susceptible to them.

Experiencing Adulthood’s performance for the first time

21st Century Schizoid Frank

While Velvet proves mostly relevant today, much has changed in regards to how young people adapt to the shocking world of adulthood, and most prominent coming-of-age films in recent years highlight the technological advancements and cultural and political shifts culpable for these changes. Riding the new wave of coming-of-age films established in the ‘90s with young directors such as Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach, and Hal Hartley making their voices heard, the 21st century has been rife with like-minded stories of deliberate and awkward assimilation to the adult world. Films like Margaret (Lonergan, 2011), a commendably loose adaptation of the epigraphical Hopkins poem, serve as a significantly more literal presentation of the oddly-specific-traumatic-incident-as-loss-of-innocence-experience technique at work, while Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015) directly address the concern of the coming-of-age story’s new cut-off age (Greta Gerwig stars as characters in their late twenties in both films).

But this century’s most apt postscript to Velvet thus far in regards to the young hero’s contemporized journey has been an equally-odd music biopic of the fictional experimental rock group Soronprfbs and their rapid rise and fall. Frank tells the story of twenty-something paper-pusher and struggling songwriter Jon Burroughs as the hands of fate place him at the threshold of a unique journey certain to displace him from the comfortable domestic reality he’s halfheartedly succumbed to (i.e. living with his parents). Jon happens to be nearby when the keyboard player for a touring band tries to drown himself, causing the group’s manager to extend him the offer of filling in at that night’s show. Jon accepts, of course, and soon finds himself holed up in a cabin with the band working on their next album.

The driving force behind Soronprfbs – a band almost as odd sounding as its name – is the titular Frank, a man who inexplicably refuses to remove a giant cartoonish papier-mâché-like mask from his head. Much like Booth, Frank baffles both the audience and Jon every time he (presumably) opens his mouth, while all other characters seem unfazed by his eccentricities. Not only is the rest of the band accustomed to Frank’s glaring physical unorthodoxy, but passers-by pay no attention to the man behind the uncertain expression attached to Frank’s cartoon head. The only attention Frank seems to draw is from the band’s young fan base when they arrive at the South by Southwest music festival late in the film, though this is mostly due to Frank’s status as social media celebrity.

“Your head is still sort of intimidating”

Although nowhere near as menacing as Booth, the immediacy of Frank’s intimidation lies not only in his mysterious and totally unheard of “condition” whereupon he refuses to take off his plastic head, but is also due in part to his excess of creativity, something Jon clearly lacks in his own songwriting endeavors. The opening scene depicts this struggle as Jon is shown literally trying to find his voice, forcing inspiration from uninspiring events and mentally transforming them into improvised pop songs. What Jon admires about Frank is his effortless stream-of-consciousness songwriting abilities, a skill Jon clearly lacks in his recitation of superficial observations sung over generic piano medleys. When Frank tells him “you can write a song about anything,” this appears to be an epiphanic moment for Jon, whose pool of songwriting material stagnates between youthful imagination and adult-aged experience.

Frank, on the other hand, is unable to limit his creativity to his music. His unconventional methods of thinking can’t be contained by the buffer between head and world, and evidently spill over into his surrounding cast of characters. In this way, he can best be identified as a non-corporeal Frank-force as his behavior reflects an extreme ideology rather than a possession of familiar human traits. His musical versatility echoes Booth’s flexible use of profanity, debasing our understanding of conventional music every way he knows how, while his frightening influence over his peers fits comfortably within the pre-established Frank framework.

But where Booth’s emotions blend together into a single extreme reaction, Frank’s are obscured by the perpetual blank stare plastered on his impenetrable mask. Frank is far from the hellish bogeyman constructed by Lynch, but shares this trait of unreadable expressiveness, which ventures into eerie territory in an early scene onstage with Jon before we’re introduced to him. “What goes on inside that head inside that head?” Jon asks on behalf of the audience before Frank later vows to monotonously verbalize his facial expressions to the chagrin of the rest of his band. Besides the less-subtle irony of a man literally masking his emotions sharing his “why-cover-anything-up” philosophy with his bandmates, what’s striking about Frank’s openness is our inability to read any of the information he offers without access to his face. His sentimentality feels ironic at first in the context of the other band members’ disinterest and subsequent dislike for Jon, but Frank proves to be a cesspool of adult influence circulating input data and regurgitating it earnestly at random in the form of song. Like Jeffrey learning new definitions for well-understood words, Jon learns a new definition for “face,” being that it isn’t always a reliable source of extracting information from its proprietor’s brain.

We have a hard time knowing what to make of the ambiguous figure of Frank – is he a genius, or is he a lunatic? Is he safe, or is he dangerous? As the band travels to their recording space, Jon opens up to Don, the group’s manager, about his uncertainty with Frank’s glaring quirk. Don has thus far provided the straightforward information we need to rationalize the looming adult world, and solidifies his status as the Williams-superego character by telling Jon he understands his curiosity about Frank’s lifestyle, calmly asserting that Jon’s “just gonna have to go with [it].” We momentarily feel as if that taboo subject is finally being addressed when Don asks Jon what he thinks of Frank —but rather than referencing Frank-as-anomaly, he’s asking Jon’s opinion on Frank-as-artist. Continuing along this downhill path of total alienation from the adult world, the mentor-mentee relationship is further subverted:

Don [wistfully]: “Frank, with all his issues, is without a doubt the 100% most-sanest cat I’ve ever met. Me, on the other hand…”
Jon [nervously jocular]: “Well, you seem pretty sane to me.”
Don: [Laughs] “Yeah! But no, no…I spent a lot of time in a psychiatric hospital. I was labelled as severely mentally ill. I used to fuck mannequins. It’s a condition.”

Here we see the first of many severe blows that ultimately deteriorate any semblance of a healthy journey for the hero: while the irrational force responsible for cultivating this imperative rite-of-youth remains consistently prominent (he accidentally sets himself on fire in the periphery of this particular scene), the mentor figure has a history of severe mental illness (it may also be worth noting that he refers to his illness as “a condition,” confirming that having sex with mannequins – unlike the behavior of any Frank – is likely recognized by the DSM), ultimately hanging himself while donning a spare Frank head. Don was Jon’s gateway to a typical adulthood, and his obvious unsound state of mind, along with a pathetic yearning to “be” Frank, does not bode well for Jon’s future.

Don, hypothetically: “I played the same instrument myself when I was your age”

“Sooner or later you’re going to get the feeling: why can’t I be Frank?”

Later in the film we receive the surprising news that Don was the band’s keyboardist before both Jon and his barely-drowned predecessor took over. It becomes evident that the role of keyboard player, like the amateur detective, has a high turnover rate due to the nature of the position’s proclivity for self-growth. But unlike the detective, the keyboardist’s fate is far from typical – or desirable. Though mental instability proves a notable characteristic of Jon’s two precedents, what Jon shares with Don is a deep rooted desire for the endless creative brilliance spouted by Frank, or more harmfully, a need to “be” Frank. At such an early stage in his career as keyboardist Jon has yet to reach the level of obsession embodied by Don, but his insistence that Frank “should be famous” for his musical gift certainly foreshadows a blossoming fixation. While Jeffrey succumbs to the temptations of Booth’s malevolence, he certainly never viewed Frank as a role model.

The life cycle depicted in Frank, therefore, quickly deviates from that proposed in Blue Velvet: rather than the hero facing this external otherness head-on with the guidance of his conscience, achieving the unobtainable role of external otherness is the objective of the conscious-less hero who is offered no alternative but to wither away in the dull repetition of everyday life. Jon appears to be a prime candidate for his position as early as the opening scene, as he crafts such wistful lyrics as “Endless rolling waves / what will you carry to me? / Where will you carry me to?” and “I dream of an angel to take me away from these little boxes.” What Jon yearns for isn’t a clear direction in life or a flesh-and-blood savior to accompany him on a new chapter in his existence – he yearns to be presented with a pre-existing identity to “like” and “reblog” for himself.

As he consciously sees Frank as a personal goal to be achieved, Jon’s process of transformation, unlike Jeffrey’s, is documented every step of the way. He consistently updates us on the band’s progress as they work on their album through a narrative of tweets and blog posts, which focus more so on his personal growth than anything else. “Here in Vetno I have found my abusive childhood, my mental hospital, that which pushes me to my furthest corners” Jon blogs, as he forces himself to believe he’s suffering like Frank has in order to create real art. Though the line “Frank picked me, it’s not up to you” conceivably could have been uttered by Jeffrey as he heroically claims complete responsibility for the dastardly task of eliminating a lunatic, it is instead declared by Jon, insistent that destiny has chosen him to fulfill the sacred role of said lunatic, and that he is not, as his bandmate Clara contends, merely “fingers being told which keys to push.”

In this context, Jon shifts the archetype of the chosen figure from the everyman taking responsibility for his personal growth to a narcissist under the assumption that he, individually, is on track to appropriate a timeless force of obfuscation in order to achieve the ultimate feat of contemporary existence: to go viral. But to a knowing audience, Frank is not an external force that can be imitated – rather he exists internally as an urge to reason with. Even with the foreknowledge that Don and the other ill-fated keyboardist acted merely as “fingers,” Jon is seduced by Frank’s implicit carrot-and-stick in the form of a totally avant-garde approach to songwriting, a dialect of the great adult language spoken only by true artists.

In his time as a Soronprfb, Jon always lags one step behind the rest of the band. His first experience with the group is on stage, where he finds himself miraculously playing in harmony with his bandmates on a song he’s totally unfamiliar with before things go south when the Frank-influenced Dorothy-esque seductress Clara puts the kibosh on their set moments into their first song. Later, when Jon writes a tune that appeals to Frank, Clara commandeers the idea with her spacey theremin, shifting Jon’s composed composition into something more experimental – or incomprehensible to virginal ears – which fits the band’s ethos more aptly. There are several instances where he visibly becomes comfortable playing (or even interacting) with the band, but each is very short lived due to the band’s – mostly Clara’s – inability to accept him into the group. Though Jon gradually becomes accustomed to Frank’s language through constant exposure, he never quite learns how to speak it himself due to its eely dialect seemingly maintained at the hands of Clara, the buffer between Frank and reality.

In Velvet, Dorothy’s victimization makes her an extension of Booth’s vulgarity, while her femininity and prevailing maternal instincts lure Jeffrey in with a combination of sexual intrigue and motherly dependence. In Frank, it’s highly debatable as to whether Clara would make a worse lover or mother – the brief moment of passion between her and Jon is not only purely physical but rife with Clara’s contempt, while the rest of the film depicts her fractured relationship to Jon as that of a stepmother who is burdened with the news that her long-time husband has an underdeveloped adult son. With Don and Clara listlessly dismissing their roles in the development of the already-a-little-too-old hero, Jon never picks up on Frank’s language like Jeffrey does, which he ultimately utilizes to kill off Booth. Thus, Jon remains stuck writing godawful pop songs and yearning to be Frank.


While Jon and Jeffrey share an enthusiasm for diving into their respective journeys, Jon’s awkward bumbling is in stark contrast to Jeffrey’s active spirit of adventure. Where the audience is easily able to connect with Jeffrey over their shared journey, it isn’t long before we identify the loopholes through which Jon completes the steps of his journey (he doesn’t refuse the call to adventure, but the adventure only lasts as long as Clara’s keyboard remains intact – approximately one minute and ten seconds; he’s deceived into crossing the threshold in that he thinks his year-long exile with the band will be a mere day trip; etc.) and we become skeptical of his position as “hero.” In fact most of Jon’s decisions alienate him from his audience, making for a very concerning viewing experience if one was to interpret it as a coming-of-age film.

Returning to the scene where Clara hijacks Jon’s composition, it should be clarified that what seems to frustrate Jon is not that she injects the song with an undesirable weirdness, but rather that his progress in becoming Frank is stifled by someone who can out-Frank him. Jon presents his song with the default piano setting on his keyboard not because its accessibility is preferable to him, but because he doesn’t yet possess an ear for the complex weird that is Soronprfbs. The most evident example of Jon’s transgression from the audience is his interest in the sounds Frank and his band produce, which, for the most part, objectively come off as grating. Though their music is built around a standard melodic percussive base and modern rock guitar riffs, Frank’s utter-nonsense spoken-word and the various sound effect collages he chooses to impose over each track they record give the impression that the audience is meant to hear the music as comedic noise, solidifying a feeling of isolation from the only character we should feel connected to who identifies brilliance where we hear lunacy.

At a certain point, it becomes clear that Frank is the only character successfully maintaining the mythology passed down to a confused and overall incompetent generation. But the first scene we see where Jon and Frank speak in private (to Clara’s dismay), Frank the idiosyncratic id and authoritarian babysitter lets his guard down and makes himself susceptible to Jon’s inquisitivity and willingness to listen. What’s worse, a mutual friendship quickly plummets into a total role reversal and loss of identity when Frank discovers his desire for approval from a younger generation and Jon teaches him about the “magic” world of social media. “You should be famous,” Frank exclaims when Jon tweaks his “most likeable song ever” to be even more likeable, completing the power shift. Perhaps this could all be foreseen with the “welcoming smile” verbalized by Frank during their late night heart-to-heart, a matter-of-fact declaration of emotion on par with that of the emoji.

It isn’t until Frank refers to Jon’s cellphone as a “hidden camera” that we become aware of how completely uninformed he is of modern technology, and the comedic effect this has for the audience is likely the last semblance of relatability we share with Jon, as such an episode likely brings to memory our parents’ first encounter with an iPhone. Jon’s introduction of social media and technology to Frank proves a shockingly effective pacifier for his erratic behavior, while his ability to tap into the musical and cultural zeitgeist overpowers Frank’s penchant for the avant-garde. Despite the beanie-and-ukulele generation remaining repulsive to the rest of the band, Frank is unable to resist the thought of 23,751 people listening to his music, and his slow process of understanding the modern world posits that he, not Jon, is the one coming of age.

As if to suck any last trace of mysticism out of the concept of Frank, we later learn he was raised in a remarkably average household in an Any-Town-U.S.A. reminiscent of Lumberton with absolutely no developmental roadblocks before his father playfully designed Frank’s first mask. With a little background on Frank, it becomes difficult to continue to see him merely as “Frank,” especially since his human traits are particularly sympathetic. Like Booth becoming vulnerable during Dorothy’s nightclub performances of “Blue Velvet,” Frank too exhibits a weakness when Jon visits him at his parents’ house in Bluff, Kansas and we finally get a look at his badly bruised head and sullen facial expressions.

Though Blue Velvet is significantly darker in tone, the ending finds Jeffrey silencing the voice of temptation luring him towards a disgraceful future of sex and violence and assimilating to a life of fantastic normalcy. Frank, on the other hand, closes on a _re_-assimilation – that of Frank cleaning himself up after the turbulent experience of a destructive and unsuccessful assimilation for the now-further-alienated hero. As Frank sings the closing number with his newly reconvened band (which includes his first coherent human emotion thus far: “I love you all!”), Jon walks off alone, accepting failure at rubbing any of the “fucks” out. While personal growth is evidently achieved in Jon as he recognizes that he and his Frank can’t coexist, the fact that Frank proves the victor – and Jon fails to succeed in merely maintaining the rotation of ill-fated keyboard players – likely speaks to a new culture of arrested development familiar to his peers, who are prone to take naps and play ping-pong with their bosses during work hours.

Regardless of semblance, setting, or summons, Frank’s ultimate purpose remains consistent. Both films serve as perfect paradigms for their individual hero’s subjective journey to inevitable adulthood, and abstractly define the outside forces that guide them along the way. With Jeffrey and Jon personifying the hero in their respective eras, what remains constant is the chilling, ubiquitous call of the fully-developed wild:

Volume 22, Issue 1 / January 2018 Essays   blue velvet   comedy   coming of age   david lynch   lenny abrahamson